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Audiobook Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel read by Kirsten Potter

Station 11

An audacious, darkly glittering novel about art, fame, and ambition set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, from the author of three highly-acclaimed previous novels.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

A few days ago, I got an email alert from my local library announcing that one of my longstanding holds was available. When I saw that it was Station Eleven I was excited enough to return something and download it immediately. What’s kind of amusing is that I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to listen it. I bet it had something to do with the intersecting fiascoes surrounding the Hugo Awards, but whatever.

My corrupt memory and the entirely digital experience of wanting, acquiring, and experiencing the novel are sort of integral to the narrative. In the absence of our communication and transportation infrastructure, how do we retain our experiences and define ourselves? How do we preserve and transmit our culture? What is our culture?

Station Eleven is, in the most succinct analysis, post apocalyptic speculative fiction. But it’s really so much more than that. Emily St. John Mandel constructs a dense interwoven narrative combing elements of epistle, interview, memoir, both internal and external analepsis and prolepsis, and both real and imaginary secondary texts.

It sounds impenetrable and yet it’s not. The narrative flows naturally, easily, shifting in time and point of view with control and precision. Where some ambitious literary fiction can be disorienting or unweildy, Station Eleven manages to feel organic by sinking the reader deep into the characters’ lives and experiences. All of the impressive technique is subsumed within the compelling story being told.

And Kirsten Potter does an excellent job telling it. She speaks clearly and precisely and subtly shifts her tone depending on the type of narrative at play. Shakespeare has a bit of gravity, interviews have a hollow formality, action has a sort of breathlessness. I can see myself taking a chance on a book because of her narration. The audio isn’t so high that an unamplified device will suffice, but this was definitely worth the trouble of hooking up to speakers.

It’s frightening, empowering, melancholy, and stoic. The use of King Lear seems utterly appropriate. The title, traditionally Jesus being nailed to the cross, suggests suffering and sacrifice and ultimately a better world to come. If you believe that sort of thing.

I’ve read so many books that want to be what Station Eleven is, to do what Station Eleven does so effortlessly, that I’d kind of lost hope. A few chapters in I could see the broad outline of the story and I still enjoyed every moment of its unfolding. So, even though I can’t remember why I wanted to listen to it, I’m glad I did.

This ones for two kinds of readers. Recommended for fans of White Noise, The Blind Assassin, and Confessions of a Memory Eater. And fans of The Walking Dead, World War Z, and The Year of the Flood. Obviously if you like Margaret Atwood you should get to it as soon as possible.

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Our Most Anticipated Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2015

Well, mine anyway. But since I read more of it, I figure it’s technically ours. Anyway, 2014 saw the release of some wonderful science fiction and fantasy. And while we won’t be seeing The Winds of Winter or The Doors of Stone this year, 2015 is full of exciting titles. So, in chronological order, here’s what The Dinglehopper is looking forward to talking about.

 

Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

Half the World by Joe Abercrombie (February 17th)

Goodreads

Amazon

Half the World is the second book in Abercrombie’s YA Shattered Sea Trilogy. The third appears later in the list and I reviewed the first last year. Half a King was a marvel of plotting and structure with a single point of view character. Two near characters provide the perspectives for this sequel.

Sometimes a girl is touched by Mother War.

Thorn is such a girl. Desperate to avenge her dead father, she lives to fight. But she has been named a murderer by the very man who trained her to kill.

 

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (May 19th)

Goodreads

Amazon

I’m one of the few people who didn’t like Snow Crash but kept reading Stephenson anyway. I loved his last two novels, Anathem and REAMDE. The concept seems sort of similar to Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix only further into the future and perhaps more complex. I’m excited to find out.

What would happen if the world were ending?

A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.

 

The Philospher Kings by Jo Walton

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (June 30th)

Goodreads

Amazon

The first half of this duology came out in January and we’ll be reviewing it soon. Maybe the most succinct thing I can say about it is that it left me wanting more. As soon as possible. Thankfully, I only have to wait a few months.

Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

 

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu, translated by Joel Martinsen (July 7th)

Goodreads

Amazon

This is another sequel, the second part of a trilogy by Chinese superstar Cixin Liu. What can I say? There were some exciting first books last year. We reviewed the weird, wonderful, stunningly imaginative The Three-Body Problem back in October.

With the scope of Dune and the rousing action of Independence Day, this near-future trilogy is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple-award-winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author.

 

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Half a War by Joe Abercrombie (July 28th)

Goodreads

Amazon

This is the final book in The Shattered Sea Trilogy. After the just the first chapter of Half the World, I knew I was on board for the rest of the ride. This one will add another point of view character.

Yarvi is the unlikely heir to the throne—a clever, thoughtful boy with a crippled hand who feels out of place in a violent, Viking-like society. Thorn is a young girl, determined to follow in the footsteps of her dead father and become a famous warrior, whatever it takes. Now Yarvi has avenged the murder of his father, and sets out on an epic journey with Thorn that will embroil his kingdom in all-out war.

 

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville (August 4th)

Goodreads

Amazon

China Mieville is my jam.

In these stories, glistening icebergs float above urban horizons; a burning stag runs wild through the city; the ruins of industry emerge unsteadily from the sea; and the abandoned generations in a decayed space-elevator look not up at the stars but down at the Earth. Ranging from portraits of childhood to chilling ghost stories, from dystopian visions to poignant evocations of uncanny love, with beautiful prose and melancholy wit, this breath-taking collection poses searching questions of what it is to be human in an unquiet world.

 

Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (August 11th)

Goodreads

Amazon

I spent my tween years reading fantasy, but sort of drifted away from it on my way through junior high, meaning I missed a lot. For example, the dozen or so novels Robin Hobb set in The Realm of the Elderlings. The first book of her new Fitz and the Fool Trilogy, Fool’s Assassin, was one of my favorite books of last year. And no, I didn’t bother to catch up.

After a devastating confrontation, FitzChivalry Farseer is out for blood—and who better to wreak havoc than a highly trained former royal assassin?

 

The Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (October 6th)

 

 

I haven’t been this excited about a book since The Wise Man’s Fear. And there was so much more waiting involved with that one. I raved about The Mirror Empire in September. The Empire Ascendant continues Hurley’s Worldbreaker Saga, about the interdimensional invasion of one world by its parallel(s) and the people caught up in it. But that barely scratches the surface of what’s going on in this incredible series that takes nothing for granted.

As the foreign Empire spreads across the world like a disease, one of their former allies takes up her own Empress’s sword again to unseat them, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with what they hope is the key to the Empire’s undoing.
 
But when the enemy you must overcome shares your own face, who can be trusted?

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett (November 11th)

Goodreads

Amazon

This one’s as surprising as it is exciting. I enjoyed City of Stairs, a post-colonial epic spy fantasy, but I was under the impression that the author didn’t do sequels. That he switched genres with every novel. So revisiting this imaginative world wasn’t on my radar at all. But I’m glad it’s coming.

The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

 

 


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Star Wars Saturday: The Dissolve asks “Why Star Wars?”

The Dissolve is a fantastic movie critic site. They have reviews, news, features, even a movie of the week that gets deep treatment. They are serious and funny and are fans of quality cinema whether a blockbuster, a cult favorite, or from the art house.

apg_star_wars_ll_131028_16x9_9921Editorial director Keith Phipps has been writing a series called Laser Age which “examines a rich period in the history of science-fiction filmmaking that began in the late 1960s and faded away by the mid-1980s. The most recent article in the series tackles the question of why Star Wars had the impact it did.

He takes an in-depth look at the zeitgeist of 1977, attempting to figure out the components that made Star Wars more than any other science fiction film of the day. What made it become a cultural phenomenon? Phipps examines the importance of timing, the beauty of synthesis, and the in medias res nature of the narrative as all contributing to Star Wars’s popularity.

On its way toward becoming a cultural phenomenon—and altering the direction of big-screen science fiction in the process—George Lucas’ space opera went through some surprising iterations that reflected its era more closely.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, especially an old school one, this is an article you’ll want to devour.


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Book Review – Willful Child

Willful Child by Steven Erickson

Willful Child

These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’

The New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence has taken his lifelong passion for Star Trek and transformed it into a smart, inventive, and hugely entertaining spoof on the whole mankind-exploring-space-for-the-good-of-all-species-but-trashing-stuff-with-a-lot-of-high-tech-gadgets-along-the-way, overblown adventure. The result is an SF novel that deftly parodies the genre while also paying fond homage to it.

So, this is my first Steven Erickson novel.  He’s a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the author of the bestselling ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen, a complex and controversial epic fantasy; the kind of series that’s hard to get into at first and incomparable once you’ve finished.  When I got the opportunity to read something shorter, I figured it’d be a good barometer.

It’s probably not.  Willful Child is a tongue in cheek parody of Star Trek that shines a harsh light on the entire history of the franchise and its fandom.  The title is simultaneously the name of the ship and a description of the protagonist Hadrian Allen Sawback, cut from the same cloth as one James Tiberius Kirk.  He’s the kind of manly misogynist you’ll hate to love as his unbridled exuberance and unflagging confidence propel his ship into episodic mayhem.

I’ll admit that my affection for Trek has slipped the surly bonds of canon from time to time. Thise fanciful forays were often disappointing because they lacked any real affection for the source material. That isn’t the case here.  While skewering the photogenic bridge crew, the breathlessness of the episodic action, and the unfortunate socioeconomic political landscape of a colonial navy, Erickson finds and nurtures the beating heart beneath.

It’s not all fun and games, though.  The book, at least the beginning, is almost unbearably sexist. Given the source material, it can’t be avoided.  But readers should go in knowing what’s coming. There’s a decent amount of self aware commentary on that as the story progresses, but it never disappears entirely.

Instead, the narrative is clever enough to work the reader into the, well, show, for lack of a better word.  Just like the caricatures and melodrama of television often lull us into sympathy, so does Willful Child.  That is a pretty neat trick.

This is definitely a book for Trek fans.  There’s joy in recognizing the obvious parallels and delight in the subtler ones.  It also has something to offer folks who just want a good laugh at the expense of space opera or scifi television generally.

Recommended for Zapp Brannigan, Malcolm Reynolds, and Kathryn Janeway.

 

 


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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem (Updated)

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator)

3body

The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

The Three-Body Problem opens in 1967, one year into China’s Cultural Revolution, on a battle between to Red Guard factions. The typical Western Reader is probably already in speculative territory. We might have some notion of the chaotic, disruptive, destructive period, but it can still be hard to imagine internecine warfare among teenagers. As much as this is an introduction to a tumultuous period that will be recalled again and again in the novel, it’s also full of intimate details. A single death is rendered poetically, imbued with exquisite meaning yet ultimately pointless.

She waved the battle banner as though brandishing her burning youth, trusting that the enemy would be burnt to ashes in the revolutionary flames, imagining that an ideal world would be born tomorrow from the ardor and zeal coursing through her blood.… She was intoxicated by her brilliant, crimson dream until a bullet pierced her chest.

While the devastating reality of a disordered political environment is presented plainly, there’s little sense of judgement.  Compromises are made and hardships are survived. What’s perhaps most fascinating about seeing the political minutiae of another country’s history is that it tends to illuminate our own.

It’s via this careful exploration of Ye Wenjie’s experiences in the past that we come to understand the parallels Liu Cixin draws between the Cultural Revolution and the mystery in the modern narrative. While her father, Ye Zhetai endured numerous “struggle sessions” and never renounced the science he knew to be true, many other scientists sought to preserve their lives rather than their minds. Still others, committed suicide in fear and despair.

That’s what we come in on in the present. The clever cantankerous Shi Quang, a sort of hard-boiled detective straight out of Raymond Chandler, interrogates nanotechnology researcher Wang Miao about the mysterious ETO, an organization somehow tied to a recent pattern of suicides among theoretical researchers. At first Wang Miao can’t understand how his practical work could possibly be connected.

That’s the essence of the three-body problem. In classical mechanics, it’s the problem of taking an initial set of data that specifies the positions, masses and velocities of three bodies for some particular point in time and then determining their motions in relation to one another. In quantum physics, it focuses on the motions of three particles. In the novel both are important and scientifically unpredictable. But Wang Miao’s relationship to Ye Wenjie and the suicides is just as interesting.

It’s impossible to give a full accounting of what makes this book so fascinating without spoiling much of what makes it so enjoyable.  However, a few simply must be mentioned in hopes of attracting readers.  A massive online virtual reality game where scientific concepts come fast and dense, but also, humorously, literally represents the struggle for a species’ survival .  Elements of detective noir, Hollywood blockbusters, political drama, and documentary meld seamlessly together.  And I haven’t seen multi-dimensional physics explored with this kind of simultaneous seriousness and delight since Postsingular and Hylozoic.

Cixin Liu explores the similarities between first contact and revolution, the relative capabilities of states, civilizations, and worlds in a book bursting with science, ideas, and humanity.  Ken Liu has done an admirable job of translating one of China’s most popular science fiction titles, including several footnotes for the uniformed reader.

Recommended for fans of Rudy Rucker, Anathem, and Arthur C. Clarke.

Cixin Liu is a member of the China Science Writers’ Association and the Shanxi Writers’ Association. He was awarded the China Galaxy Science Fiction Award for eight consecutive years, from 1999 to 2006, and again in 2010. He received the Nebula (Xingyun) Award in both 2010 and 2011.

The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.

Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer.  He is a winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.  Ken’s debut novel, The Grace of Kings, the first in a fantasy series, will be published by Saga Press, in 2015.

Ken Liu will translate the third book in the trilogy, Dead End as well.  He commented on Tor.com that the compressed schedule required multiple translators.  The Dark Forest was translated by Joel Martinsen, who will also translate 2004’s Ball Lightning.

Tor.com has made Chapters 1-3Chapter 7, and Chapter 9 available online.

You can read translator Ken Liu’s story “Paper Menagerie” that won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards here.

The Dark Forest, the second title in the trilogy, is scheduled for July 7, 2015.

While the first two novels ground the reader in a familiar China with recognizable socioeconomic conditions, the third, in Liu Cixin’s own (trasnlated) words is pure science fiction.

“I wrote the third volume for myself and filled it with multi-dimensional and two-dimensional universes, artificial black holes and mini-universes, and I extended the time line to the heat death of the universe.  And, to our utter surprise, it was this third volume, written only for science fiction fans, which led to the popularity of the series as a whole.”

I’m actually looking forward to re-reading The Three-Body Problem come July, and again before the third installment.  Folks who’ve read both assure me that the quality and scope increases and enjoyment intensifies.  “Eliminate human tyranny! The world belongs to Trisolaris!”


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Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu translator)

3body

The Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.

Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.

The Three-Body Problem opens in 1967, one year into China’s Cultural Revolution, on a battle between to Red Guard factions. The typical Western Reader is probably already in speculative territory. We might have some notion of the chaotic, disruptive, destructive period, but it can still be hard to imagine internecine warfare among teenagers. As much as this is an introduction to a tumultuous period that will be recalled again and again in the novel, it’s also full of intimate details. A single death is rendered poetically, imbued with exquisite meaning yet ultimately pointless.

She waved the battle banner as though brandishing her burning youth, trusting that the enemy would be burnt to ashes in the revolutionary flames, imagining that an ideal world would be born tomorrow from the ardor and zeal coursing through her blood.… She was intoxicated by her brilliant, crimson dream until a bullet pierced her chest.

While the devastating reality of a disordered political environment are shown plainly, there’s little sense of judgement.  Compromises are made and hardships are survived. What’s perhaps most fascinating about seeing the political minutiae of another country’s history is that it tends to illuminate our own.

It’s via this careful exploration of Ye Wenjie’s experiences in the past that we come to understand the parallels Liu Cixin draws between the Cultural Revolution and the mystery in the present narrative. While her father, Ye Zhetai endured numerous “struggle sessions” and never renounced the science he knew to be true, many other scientists sought to preserve their lives rather than their minds. Still others, committed suicide in fear and despair.

That’s what we come in on in the present. The clever cantankerous Shi Quang, a sort of hard-boiled detective straight out of Raymond Chandler, interrogates nanotechnology researcher Wang Miao about the mysterious ETO, an organization somehow tied to a recent pattern of suicides among theoretical researchers. At first Wang Miao can’t understand how his practical work could possibly be connected.

That’s the essence of the three-body problem. In classical mechanics, it’s the problem of taking an initial set of data that specifies the positions, masses and velocities of three bodies for some particular point in time and then determining their motions in relation to one another. In quantum physics, it focuses on the motions of three particles. In the novel both are important and scientifically unpredictable. But Wang Miao’s relationship to Ye Wenjie and the suicides is just as interesting.

It’s impossible to give a full accounting of what makes this book so fascinating without spoiling much of what makes it so enjoyable.  However, a few simply must be mentioned in hopes of attracting readers.  A massive online virtual reality game where scientific concepts come fast and dense, but also humorously literally represents the struggle for a species’ survival .  Elements of detective noir, Hollywood blockbusters, political drama, and documentary meld seamlessly together.  And I haven’t seen multi-dimensional physics explored with this kind of simultaneous seriousness and delight since Postsingular and Hylozoic.

Cixin Liu explores the similarities between first contact and revolution, the relative capabilities of states, civilizations, and worlds in a book bursting with science, ideas, and humanity.  Ken Liu has done an admirable job of translating one of China’s most popular science fiction titles, including several footnotes for the uniformed reader.

Recommended for fans of Rudy Rucker, Anathem, and hard scifi.

Ken Liu will translate the third book in the trilogy, Dead End as well.  He commented on Tor.com that the compressed schedule required multiple translators.  The Dark Forest was translated by Joel Martinsen, who will also translate 2004’s Ball Lightning.

Tor.com has made Chapters 1-3Chapter 7, and Chapter 9 available online.

You can read translator Ken Liu’s story “Paper Menagerie” that won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards here.

The Dark Forest, the second title in the trilogy, is scheduled for July 7, 2015.


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Review: The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick

The Early Science Fiction of Philip K. Dick (Dover: August 2013)

Philip K. Dick published more than 120 brief works during his lifetime.  This anthology presents twelve of his finest early short stories and novellas, which originally appeared in Space Science Fiction, Imagination: Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and other pulp magazines of the early 1950s.

This is probably a book for afficionados only.  If you’re already a fan and haven’t encountered these stories before, you’ll find a lot to like.  If you have an interest in 50’s pulp, Dick delivers here.

These are cold war stories.  Golden Age America imagines the future.  And the future, in so many of these stories, is slag and ash, roiling clouds of particles, obscured suns and engines of war with more resilience and longevity than their creators.

Anyone who didn’t live through or grow up under the threat of nuclear winter could read this as anthropology or ethnography.

Much of the set decoration and direction of later Dick is on display.  From our 21st century perspective, lighting up a cigarette aboard a spaceship, in a time machine, or on an extraterrestrial colony is as jarring as a telepathic pig.  Broken or breaking marriages form the emotional core for paranoid subterrans, magical realist cuckoo clocks, and living ships.

You can see a bright arc of evolution running through these visions of the end of the world.  Technology is both the enemy and the savior.  Weapons of mass destruction merely outlive their makers, turn on them, become them; eventually evolving beyond conflict and directing the future of humanity.  Is it any wonder he wrote himself into worlds where individuals couldn’t trust even themselves?

An objective standout is “The Second Variety.”  If you’re familiar with the Terminator franchise, you already know  some of the plot.  Killing machines disguise themselves as human.  Empathy is dangerous.  This is the core of Philip K. Dick.  As is the truth that empathy is also inevitable.

The writing itself is sometimes awkward and often repetitive.  The ideas are old ones, now.  You’ve probably seen them before. Taken as the germ of later writing or as a cultural artifact, they’re interesting.  But their execution is brutal and obvious.  These were stories bought by the word that paid the bills.

Recommended for fans of Ragged Robin, The Silver Agent, and Farscape.